From punk rock to modern art, Burma’s capital has enjoyed a creative boom since military rule was scaled down. Even the former spy chief now runs a gallery …
Side Effect, one of Burma’s better known punk rock bands, practise in a dilapidated apartment block on a quiet Rangoon street. It’s a far cry from Austin, Texas, where last March the band performed at South by Southwest, one of the world’s premier music festivals. Back home, preparing for a gig outside a shopping mall, Darko C, Side Effect’s frontman and founder, was full of optimism. “Good things are happening to us,” he said. Under the junta, dissident artists, comedians and musicians were jailed. Today, his band is just one of a number of punk groups winning fans as the country’s creative scene flourishes.
Since power was handed to a semi-civilian government in 2011, reforms have been introduced to Burma slowly. The rules are unclear – Side Effect has had two songs banned, “for lame reasons” – but the relaxation of censorship has helped make arts and culture more accessible to tourists. Rangoon, the biggest city and former capital, is Burma’s cultural epicentre, though visitors can also catch anti-junta comedy in Mandalay or a punk show in Shan state.
Those who stop in Rangoon come at a critical juncture in its history. Not only are there temples, teashops and mouldering colonial-era mansions to explore but, increasingly, tourists can rub shoulders with both investors and cheroot-smokers at art galleries and chic bars, and experience a vibrant youth culture. Everywhere in the city, the instruments of change announce themselves: saws and hammers gnaw and clatter as new builds spring up beside the husks of once-grand buildings. The Sofaer Building, where the wealthy bought Egyptian cigars and English sweets during British rule, now houses high-end Japanese restaurant Gekko, while expats frequent wine and tapas bar the Lab.
Arts professionals are cautiously hopeful. Work by former political prisoners can be seen at places like the River Gallery (details below) in the upmarket Strand Hotel. “Life in Myanmar at this time is so rich and interesting,” says Gill Pattison, a New Zealander who opened the gallery in 2005 and a sister venue, River II, around the corner in 2013.
A year earlier, Khin Nyunt, the country’s former spymaster, once known as the Prince of Darkness, turned his house into a gallery, the Nawaday Art Gallery – though this is not to be confused with the Nawaday Tharlar gallery, run by Ko Pyay Way. “We are relishing being here during this momentous transition, helping where we can,” says Pattison. Her roster of artists includes Htein Lin, a former political prisoner who in six years behind bars created 200 works on white cotton longyis, the Burmese sarongs that were prison uniform.
On Tuesday nights, locals, expats and tourists mingle over punch at Pansodan Gallery, a first-floor hideaway run by charismatic Aung Soe Min. Stored in a musty room upstairs are thousands of historical posters and documents that he hopes one day to store in a national archive. His cache includes everything from posters of pre-junta fashion shows to the first Muslim teaching books written in Burmese. But setting up a museum that will tell the story of the “missing piece” of Burmese history is difficult without help from the state. “We are pushing all the time to enable ourselves [to work independently] from the government,” he said.
Darko C used a similar phrase when he talked about music: “You need to push the boundaries a little bit – if you remain being scared, you’re not going to see any changes.”
At their gig, the set was frenetic – the Hives meets the Strokes, some Burmese songs and some in English. At one side stood Suu Mon Aung, a 24-year-old woman with a polished bob and square glasses. “I like rock,” she said. “It’s about giving you freedom. You can shout out loud.”
The River Gallery
Inside the luxurious, colonial-era Strand Hotel in the city’s old town, the River Gallery is an easy place to potter in for an hour or two. Drop by the hotel bar (where the occupying Japanese stabled their horses during the second world war) on Friday nights for the half-price happy hour. Find the sister gallery, River Gallery II, a few minutes’ walk around the corner on 38th Street.
On the first floor of a dilapidated building on Pansodan Street, curator Aung Soe Min runs one of the city’s best-loved galleries, which is a meeting place for artists and creative types. Don’t miss their Tuesday evening gatherings.
• First floor, 286 Pansodan Street,
Nawaday Tharlar Gallery
This gallery, gift shop and cafe was opened in 2012 by Ko Pyay Way – as well as promoting his own work, he discovers and shows young local talents. Not to be confused with the Nawaday Gallery opened by former spy chief Khin Nyunt.
• Room 304, Building 20B, 3rd Floor, Yaw Min Gyi Road, nawadaygallery.com
Hosting everything from photography competitions and artists’ round-table discussions to homegrown hip-hop shows, Rangoon’s Institut Français keeps an active cultural calendar. There are regular screenings of European films.
• 340 Pyay Road, Sanchaung Township, institutfrancais-birmanie.com
50th Street Bar
This popular sports bar is one of the best places in the city to catch live music, with regular gigs and open mic nights. The kitchen serves Asian dishes as well as some foreign favourites – from Mexican tacos to bangers and mash.
• 9-13 50th Street, 50thstreetyangon.com
Source: The Guardian